08. 08. 2018. 10:16

Vilmos Molnár: The Ballad of Jihan Áblez

translated by Owen Good

Jihan had been a slave to rock music since his childhood. To him it was almost a religion. – We are pleased to republish a short story from Vilmos Molnár, translated by Owen Good.

Jihan Áblez was an eighteen-year-old Tatar boy from Dobrogea, he would die for rock music and dreamt of becoming a disc jockey after military service in one of the trendy discoes along the Romanian coast. It wasn’t a mad idea; every summer the discoes of the coastal resorts were buzzing with life, there were a lot of foreigners as well, it was important to have good music playing. The experienced disc jockeys earned well, their name and fame would cross territories from one resort to the next. Disc jockey he would say in English, as despite being Tatar Jihan Áblez was a dedicated lover of the West, which he did his best to stress by frequently mixing English expressions into his speech. Otherwise he spoke Romanian, regardless of the majority of Turkish, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Greek and Lipovans living in Dobrogea. Tatar was only ever uttered now and again between family members.

Jihan had been a slave to rock music since his childhood. To him it was almost a religion. The Tatars around those parts hardly practised the Muslim religion anyway. The true believers of Islam had emigrated to Turkey years ago. They’d had good reason. In the fifties in the Turkish and Tatar villages of Dobrogea, the wheels of the few draw-wells, which were highly valued due to the scant water supply, were smeared with pork fat night after night by the Romanian secret service, the anonymous agents of the Securitate. A true devout Muslim would rather die of thirst than touch the unclean pork fat. Hardly any streams purled in those parts, back then there was no mineral water sold in the shops, nor could a devout believer ever ask a non-believing neighbour to draw up water for them. The Muslims who took their religion seriously could do nothing other than emigrate together with their imams. Without their religion the people soon began to leave their language behind as well.

But this happened in the fifties, and in 1981, Jihan Áblez who had just passed his leaving certificate knew little about this. The past didn’t really interest him. For him rock music was everything. His ears drank up the music of Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson like a faithful Muslim the muezzin call to prayer. Although he hadn’t realised it, instead of Islam Jihan had found a new religion for himself.

Those who lived in Romania back then and were curious about the latest news in western pop music would, every night, when it was easiest to receive the foreign transmission, stay up beside their radio set twisting the knobs, searching for a clearer signal. Radio Free Europe’s or Radio Luxembourg’s programs meant a doorway to another world for many young people, even if the set was prone to crackle with interfering socialist stations. Those who had western relatives, and from time to time would receive a package containing one or two records, were veritable kings. Jihan didn’t have any relatives abroad, yet he was still rolling in rock records. At the Constanta port not only did the sailors smuggle in whiskey, jeans, contraceptives and the virtual currency of the day, Kent cigarettes, but the latest records of western pop music’s biggest stars.

Yet it was Radio Vacanţa, a radio station broadcasting from Mamaia, that defined Jihan Áblez’s life. You could say he grew up on it. It had been broadcasting its sound since 1967, in fact, it had been founded so that the ever-growing number of foreign tourists seeking out the Romanian coastline would feel at home and come back again. Hence, Radio Vacanţa mostly played music; numbers from the western charts featured in its programmes on a daily basis. When the station broadcast, from the last Sunday of May until the first Sunday of September, it was a true musical oasis for the youth living in Constanta county who liked pop music. Since his childhood, Jihan would divide the year in two: when Radio Vacanţa was on, and when it wasn’t.

Jihan didn’t like searching among the crackling stations on the radio through the night, for him good music and sunshine belonged together. He lay out on the beach on a sun lounger, surrounded by tall poles with speakers fixed to their tops, blaring Radio Vacanţa non-stop. The station would seldom and only briefly give the news but it did it in five languages; besides Romanian was English, German, French and Russian. If Jihan closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was basking in the sun on a Californian beach. The sun shone on the Romanian beaches just like it did in California, not even Ceauşescu could meddle with that, and then, because the music was the same, too, for his part everything was all right.

But something wasn’t all right. Several weeks ago he had received his military summons, and the first day of his military service was drawing treacherously close. Back then it was obligatory for any able-bodied young male to get into khaki for a while. Not only did the shadow of nearly eighteen months, embittered with ridiculous disciplining which he considered to be a useless waste of time, hang over his head like the sword of Damocles, but also the nightmare that for a long time he wouldn’t have any chance to regularly listen to the rock stars who’d become an indispensable part of his life. The radio waves of his favourite station would break on the military’s breakwater.

Jihan had a place which he loved even more than the deck chairs of the sandy beach. During summer, if he was in a bad mood, he’d retreat to this place on his own. Along the Romanian coast, one or two kilometres from the beach, like tiny strange islands, wreckages of ships protruded from the sea, grounded on sandbanks in different times. The authorities and the fishermen had taken anything moveable long ago, their weather-beaten metal structures jutted out of the sea, defying the waves, offering a resting place to seagulls. And to the swimmers who risked swimming across and clambering up onto the deck.

The 7,335 tonne Evangelia, which sailed the seas under a Greek flag and was owned by the then wealthiest man in the world, Aristoteles Onassis, ran aground in October 1986 on a sandbank in the Romanian waters near Costineşti. To be more precise: it was driven aground by its very own captain and helmsman. As was later revealed, the dilapidated, obsolete Evangelia had come to such an ignominious end due to insurance fraud. The international insurer learned about the fraud and refused to pay out. The ship had stood on a sandbank in the sea ever since, more than two kilometres from the Costineşti beach, and had become a symbol for the young people’s resort, and a preferred destination for strong swimmers.

At the end of the summer, in 1981, Jihan Áblez swam here. As usual he pushed a tiny Lilo on the water in front of him, with a small bundle on top. Hidden away in the bundle was a Sokol pocket-radio he’d bought under the counter a couple of years ago from a sailor, and in the summer he always had it with him. Over the years the storms and constant battering of the waves had split the hull of the Evangelia in two, a fissure half a metre wide gaped down its ten-metre-high side. The swimmer had to tactfully manoeuvre their way in through here, if they wanted clamber up the spiral staircase inside to the deck. In good weather, when the sea was calm, this wasn’t an issue. Jihan slipped past the sharp-edged fissure with expert grace and nimbly climbed the spiral staircase. On the deck he picked out a spot in the sun, put the small Lilo under his head and switched on the Sokol. He didn’t have to fiddle with the dial; in the summer it was always set to Radio Vacanţa.

He was happy here on his own island. With the thought of the more than two kilometres of sea separating him from the beach, he imagined he wasn’t in Romania anymore. What a feeling! He imagined the Evangelia pulling up its anchor and heading for California, for beaches of eternal sun and cool music. Closing his eyes, he took pleasure in the warm fingers of the heat of the sun stroking at his body and face, he listened to the soothing chatter of the waves as they lapped against the ship’s iron side, and let the music riding in on the radiowaves wash over his brain. We don’t need no education, Pink Floyd sang out of the Sokol, and Jihan felt like the song was written for him. Bollocks to education, to service, and to khaki, too!

Later he fell asleep, and didn’t hear the seagulls’ baneful shrieks from the tops of the masts, their calls signalling a storm. To the east the sky grew horribly dark, white-edged black clouds gathered above. The wind grew stronger, the waves grew higher and furiously battered against the side of the Evangelia. The water bubbled and churned around the sharp-edged fissure. The cold squalls woke Jihan up, who quickly grabbed his radio and mattress, and made for the spiral staircase that brought him down to the gaping fissure in the ship’s side.

The stormy weather only let up after two days. By then, onshore, people had been searching for Jihan everywhere. Parents, relatives and friends took up the search in force. The Romanian police joined in, and the militia, but he didn’t turn up. When they came across his clothes, abandoned by a sun lounger in Costineşti, a motorboat set out to the Evangelia across the still-rough sea, but they didn’t find anything there either. Nor did they ever find any further trace of him. Jihan Áblez never appeared again.

His friends and people who knew him could never accept that someone, who still had so many rock songs to listen to, could just vanish. Someone who loves the sunshine that much can’t disappear forever into darkness. Different versions came to the surface:

Jihan left to climb the invisible spiral staircase to the stars, to listen to the music of the spheres.

Jihan left to play Radio Vacanţa’s top hits to the stars on his Sokol.

Jihan left to swim, pushing his Lilo, across the ocean, for California, where the sun always shone and cool music always played.

Jihan left to file a complaint about the pork fat on the draw-wells.

Jihan left to learn Islam from Mohamed first-hand.

Jihan left to perfect his knowledge of the Tatar language with his ancestors.

Jihan left to become a famous DJ at the Disco in the Sky.

Jihan left to investigate what the situation was with the Evangelia’s insurance.

Jihan left to get closer to the Sun to catch more rays.

Jihan left to sort out eternal peace so he wouldn’t have to get into khaki.

Jihan left to get into khaki for the Army of God

Jihan left. To sink into the waves of music forever, to forever sink to a watery grave.

 

 

(Originally in Hévíz Journal's special English issue in 2015.)